United States, 2016. Directed by Jackson Stewart. Starring Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, Barbara Crampton, Matt Mercer, Justin Welborn, Jesse Merlin. 88 minutes. ★★
Over the past few years, throwback horror seems to have sprouted a sub-subgenre of its own, one taking the form’s commitment to retro elements (old-style storylines and plot devices, synth-driven scores) one step further by reproducing the practical-effect goriness of yore: Joe Begos’s The Mind’s Eye, for example, reimagines Scanners as Brian Yuzna might have made it. For some reason, they all seem to star Graham Skipper, who has developed the acting technique of “staring furiously” into something of an art form:
Beyond the Gates sees Skipper taking the role of Gordon Hardesty, returning to his hometown to join his brother John (Chase Williamson, John Dies at the End) in sorting out the affairs of their father, a video-store proprietor who disappeared some months earlier. At the store, they find the only clue to their father’s fate: a spooky “VCR board game” named Beyond the Gates, hosted by the cryptic Barbara Crampton. The brothers—along with Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant, Dexter and Heroes)—soon discover the game serves as a portal to another realm…and now that they’ve started playing, they have no choice but to see the game through to the end.
I can’t deny that the film has a whole heap of flaws. The pacing feels lopsided, with the first act overloaded with too much exposition, taking too long to get to the stuff that we actually care about. The supporting characters receive little in the way to define them beyond cannon fodder. Despite some impressive effects work, the gory bits play out too quickly, while the “gameplay” sequences quickly fall into repetition.
The three leads turn in decent performances in isolation, but have little to no chemistry with each other. In the case of the brothers, estranged for so long they can’t even hug each other without being awkward, this mostly works. It presents more of a problem for Skipper and Grant: their characters need to work through some long-term relationship difficulties but I could barely bring myself to believe the two actors ever met before beginning production on the film. Few of the supporting actors—including Matt Mercer (the Contracted franchise), Justin Welborn (The Signal), and C-list scream queen Sara Malakul Lane—bother to find much depth in their characters beyond “gonna die soon.”
In spite of all this, the production does have a couple of aces up its sleeve. Crampton, playing a bit more flamboyantly than her recent roles in You’re Next and We Are Still Here, dominates her scenes with a curious alluring menace. Another supporting player—Jesse Merlin, as an eccentric antique store owner who knows more about the game than he’s willing to say—steals his two or three brief sequences, playing the character’s camp to the hilt.
Meanwhile, Wojciech Golczewski’s analog-synth score owes little to John Carpenter’s spare pulsing waveforms, choosing instead to evoke the prog-rock stylings of Italian composers Fabio Frizzi and Claudio Simonetti; it’s a bit more interesting as a result. The music combines with director Jackson Stewart’s visuals to give the film a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere, not entirely dissimilar from Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy. This doesn’t entirely balance out the problems, but it creates a context in which those problems become somewhat more forgivable.
Which doesn’t mean I can wholeheartedly recommend Beyond the Gates; it’s a middling effort that doesn’t get as much right as the audience might hope for. But it works better as a way to kill ninety minutes than it probably should.